How to save the endangered monarch butterfly

Elena Angelides 5 July 2022

Monarch butterflies hold a special spiritual significance in Mexican culture, but climate change means that their habitat and future are now in jeopardy

To travel to new parts of the world means leaving behind old, familiar territories for something else, perhaps heading towards the scary, the challenging and the unknown. For monarch butterflies, that risky migration is necessary for the survival of their species.

At the end August, millions will depart on a journey they have never taken before. Every year, a swarm flies from Ontario and Quebec, Canada, across North America to find their winter homes in the oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico.

In two months, they cover 5,000km, arriving in early November to settle in sanctuaries in the State of Mexico and Michoacán. Until March, Mexico is their hibernation and breeding ground.

Then, the monarchs voyage back to Canada, laying eggs on milkweed plants in the US as they go.

Why monarch butterflies matter

Monarch butterflies rest on leaves in sunny forestCredit: Gabriella Rivera @gabylianaMonarch butterflies' unique migratory pattern takes them through Mexico on El Día De Los Muertos

The monarch’s hold an important position in Mexican culture, but their population is under threat due to climate change.

As their arrival coincides with the Mexican tradition El Día De Los Muertos—The Day of the Deadon November 1st and 2nd, some believe the monarchs are the souls of their lost loved ones, returning in another form.  

In Nahuatl, a pre-Hispanic language, "papalotzin" means butterfly, or more specifically ancient or royal butterfly. Hence, Monarch.

There is an ancient goddess called Itzpapálotl, a symbol of rebirth and regeneration. The idea that the monarchs have a role in life’s cycle is rooted in Mexico’s pre-Hispanic beliefs.   

"Some believe the monarchs are the souls of their lost loved ones, returning in another form"

Many magical aspects about the monarchs can be put down to mother nature herself. Incredibly, the butterflies are making this voyage for the first time.

This is a world of difference from migratory birds, where the younger birds follow the elders, who have learnt the route from their ancestors. Instead, monarchs have an in-built navigation-system, inherited in their genes. 

This migrating generation are called the Methuselah and have an especially long lifespan of up to eight months as they are born at the end of August.

While conventionally the monarchs live for between two and seven weeks, the Methuselah have their maturing process halted so that they can migrate. On their way back to Canada, four or five more generations are born from eggs at different points in the US.

“It’s something very unique in terms of evolution. It’s quite amazing how they have this system,” says Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, a biologist at Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, whose research focusses on forest conservation.  

Tragically, the population is already steadily decreasing, mostly because their habitat—the oyamel fir tree on which they exclusively perch—is shrinking.

The sad truth is that a suitable habitat for this tree, inside Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, is projected to disappear in just 68 years.  

A sense of rebirth

Michelle Moraila takes visitors to see this incredible spectacle year after year. In her first year studying Tourism at Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Mexico City, she began working for her future-husband Ricardo’s travel business, Rutas Mágicas.

“We met at a Day of the Dead event he hosted. I admired the passionate way he spoke about travel and Mexican culture, and knew I had to be closer to him in some way,” she smiles.

“He started the company a month before we met, in 2013. As we’ve grown as a couple, the agency has too. It’s like my adopted baby.”  

They are getting married in October, in true travel-style at the Villas Teotihuacan Hotel, next to the Teotihuacan pyramids. “In the morning, you can see the hot air balloons released. It’s a gorgeous picture,” says Michelle. 

"She didn’t feel that the butterflies were her loved ones, but her future"

The couple’s guest, Alex Teopa, had a personally significant relationship with the monarchs and The Day of the Dead beliefs. Alex loved seeing the butterflies and attended four times a year in February and March.

Tragically, she was diagnosed with cancer, but vowed to live her life to fullest. 

“Alex was one of our best. We always saved her a spot. On her last trip, she told us, ‘I feel like when I leave, I’m going to come back as a butterfly and make the journey I’ve been visiting for years,” says Michelle.

“She didn’t feel that the butterflies were her loved ones, but her future. She would go back to the forests of Mexico. Alex was very, very dear to us.”

Alex Teopa passed away in March, aged 56, her departure coinciding with the monarchs. 

Save the forest, save the butterflies 

Project researcher, Cuauhtémoc Sáenz-Romero, is on a mission to plant oyamel fir trees at a higher altitude than the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, to find out if they can survive.

The idea is to uncover whether one day, it might be possible to plant a new forest and create a safe winter home for the monarchs.  

“We have done some projections of future climate scenarios and found that the suitable climatic habitat for the fir is shrinking, to the point where it will completely disappear inside the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve by 2090,” says Sáenz-Romero.

The team planted oyamel seedlings in four sites of varying altitudes across the Nevado de Toluca, a mountain higher than the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve and 100km away.

A big challenge is that the projected future climate has not yet happened, so the trees are planted in an environment which is not yet suitable, diminishing their chances of survival.  

"Climate change is moving too fast and it’s going to have very serious consequences on the forest"

For Sáenz-Romero, participation from foresters has been a saving grace. He’s worked with the native community of Calimaya, who own the forest, as well as Ejido La Mesa, a collective group of landowners in the State of Mexico.

“They have the country-man wisdom of being born and raised there. They know the forest very well, much better than me, so I rely on their counsel. The human component of local participation is very rewarding for our spirit,” says Sáenz-Romero.

He praised the help of Franciso Ramírez-Cruz, otherwise known as “Don Pancho”, who has now sadly passed away. He had cancer during the COVID-19 crisis, leaving his medical appointments cancelled after hospitals were at full capacity.

When asked if he feels hopeful about the project and creating a home for the monarchs before it’s too late, Sáenz-Romero remains positive in tone but sincere in response. 

“It’s hard to be optimistic because we have been trained as researchers to be objective. If you see the data, we are quickly running into the worst scenario,” says Sáenz-Romero. “Climate change is moving too fast and it’s going to have very serious consequences on the forest.” 

“It’s a hard question. In the last scene of the movie Don’t Look Up, the group are having dinner just before they are wiped out by the meteor. The guy from NASA says something like, ‘at least we tried…'” 

Where to see the monarch butterflies

There are four sanctuaries in the State of Mexico: in El Rosario (a village in Michoacán), Sierra Chincua, El Capulín and Piedra Herrada.

Due to its proximity to Mexico City airport and the town of Valle De Bravo, most international tourists visit Piedra Herrada.

The oyamel fir tree migration project is funded by the Monarch Butterfly Fund, American Forests, Fondo de Coservación del Eje Neovolcánico, North American Forest Commission and Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo

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